Inquiring Minds

From Virginia Woolf to the “cognition of comics,” students pursue new research

Could scribbling and doodling make you a better listener? Did all of Queen Victoria’s subjects agree with her view that women’s rights were a “wicked folly”? Before they’ve even figured out their major, CGS undergraduates are conducting compelling studies and helping solve weighty problems. Since 2014, 21 student and faculty teams have worked together on research projects at the College. They’ve investigated whether antibiotics are messing with our water supply and the role of popular songs and spirituals in advancing Civil Rights in 1960s America.

The experience is mutually beneficial, says Megan Sullivan, director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Teaching & Learning and associate dean for faculty research & development.

“CGS faculty take very seriously their commitment to excellent undergraduate instruction, but they are also actively involved in researching and publishing,” she says. “Having an undergraduate conduct research means faculty have the time to do both things well—to teach and to research. Students help them compile statistics, translate material, and locate evidence.” For students, it’s a chance to delve into a topic they might not otherwise encounter and to get a taste of graduate study. “Students have told me how much they have appreciated learning how to research literature, politics, or science in more depth than they have in any classroom,” says Sullivan, “and how much they have learned about synthesizing information for various audiences.” Most of the students find a faculty mentor through the center and all are awarded stipends funded by alumni donations.

We asked three undergraduates to tell Collegian about their experiences and their findings on topics as diverse as the cognition of comics and American attitudes on Communism in the 1950s.

Catholics & Communism
Photo by Michael D. Spencer

When US Senator Joseph McCarthy started whipping up anticommunist hysteria during the Red Scare, he planted himself at the center of what he considered a battle for his country and his religion. Can anyone doubt “this is the time for the show-down between the democratic Christian world and the communistic atheistic world?” he asked in February 1950.

McCarthy was a Catholic, but not everyone who shared his faith shared his fervor for rooting out supposedly high-placed American Communists, says historian Jay Corrin. With the help of Sean Kargman (’17), the professor of social sciences is digging through Catholic responses to Cold War–era communism in preparation for a book on the subject.

Kargman is poring over articles from Protestant, Catholic, and Jesuit publications of the time, gaining new insight into history and experience analyzing reams of material. “I used to view research as a chore,” he says. “But Professor Corrin has inspired me to actually go to the library and read journals that relate to our topic. Doing research this way was surprisingly more fun and informative than just going online and pulling up facts, and it’ll be the way I do research if I ever want to write a book of my own.”

The facts Kargman is finding could have implications for understanding today’s political fault lines. “The Catholic response was by no means unitary,” says Corrin of the reaction to McCarthy. He believes the cracks first appeared during the New Deal, which some saw as a “springboard to communism itself,” and can still be seen today in “the gulf that separates liberal and conservative Catholics.”

Leaving the Room of One's Own
Photo by Michael D. Spencer

Feminists “ought to get a good whipping.” It’s safe to say that Queen Victoria—the British monarch who ruled a vast empire, but spent most of her reign in secluded mourning for her husband—was not one of history’s great agitators for women’s rights. Although the suffrage movement took root during her reign, Victoria became renowned as a symbol of female domesticity. Today, says Lecturer of Rhetoric Beth Kramer, there’s a “common perception of Victorian feminism as conservative or antifeminist.” It’s an impression she hopes to challenge in a study—soon to be a book—on 19th-century feminism.

As part of her research, Kramer enlisted the help of Jessica Rizk (’15, CAS’17, COM’17) to examine the works of a writer and feminist raised in the Victorian era, Virginia Woolf. Rizk says she’s been scouring the author’s letters for “the many instances in Woolf’s life where she seems to struggle to find a balance between her professional and domestic roles, a struggle many women still experience today.” The two researchers are charting Victorian feminism’s tensions, struggles, and progress.

“Going in, I thought that I would find a lot of what constitutes modern feminism in Woolf’s writings, since she is largely regarded as emblematic of contemporary feminism,” says Rizk. “I soon discovered that her view is much more aligned with traditional, Victorian feminism—a feminism very compatible with domestic endeavors.” She says that’s changed her view of feminism’s evolution over time. “Female domesticity, which was an asset in Victorian women’s reform, is now something women try to suppress in an attempt to seem equal to men. I think that the fight for gender equality is about truly embracing all the qualities that make us women and granting them equal value in society.”

The Science of Creativity
Photo by Janice Checchio

If you’ve got writer’s block, try doodling. If you want to be a better listener, try coloring while people are talking. The comic book artist Lynda Barry, a fellow and an assistant professor at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, is full of tricks for promoting creativity: Her writing workshops, including Writing the Unthinkable, have been lauded by NPR and the New York Times for encouraging even the most unimaginative to fan their creative spark. CGS Chair and Associate Professor of Rhetoric Davida Pines has studied Barry’s work and approach for years, but she’d never considered the science behind the cartoonist’s theories—until she met neuroscience major Stacy D. Appiah (’15).

In January 2016, Appiah joined Pines as a research assistant to help the professor prepare a book chapter on Barry’s work. The pair’s early conversations sparked a new avenue of inquiry, says Pines: “the cognition of comics.” Appiah began by searching through neuroscience databases and journals for articles on the brain and creativity. She was able, for instance, to tie Barry’s doodling tip with neuroscience studies showing the brain is better at solving problems if kept ticking with mundane tasks than if allowed to idle.

Pines says watching Appiah immerse herself in Barry’s work brought new energy to the research project. “To watch her encounter it for the first time, and when I bounced ideas off her, the freshness [of her perspective] was very helpful to me.”

“The coolest thing I’ve learned while doing this research is that there are people trying to merge creativity and science,” says Appiah. And not just Barry, who she says is “asking questions such as, What is an image? What is a memory? Why do we keep this memory and not that one? There might be scientific research about her questions, but she is searching for the bigger philosophical perspective.”